chapter  26
11 Pages

Invisible trade

Sovereign decisions on the Sino–Russian border
WithNatalia Ryzhova

How is sovereign power experienced and reproduced? How are decisions made and mediated, and translated into action? Why and how do grey zones in law appear and how are they maintained? Day-to-day interactions on borders, in particular “informal” (“invisible,” “shuttle,” “people-to-people”) trade, are an appropriate locus to answer these questions. References to invisibility and informality by no means imply, however, that officials would not know about it. In contrast, there is hardly anybody who does not. As part of the Soviet legacy, in late 1980s traders saw themselves as speculators, and hence believed they were predators at this border. By the mid-1990s, they no longer thought in this way. People started to be proud of their hard work and blame others for being the real “predators” – that is, the officials who made their work harder than it should have been. Using sovereignty and its two markers – invisibility and predation – as analytic tools, as well as longitudinal ethnographic materials about changes of informal trade on the Russian-Chinese border over 30 years, I try to elucidate how politics within and beyond state institutions is produced and why it might be debunked. Research found that sovereign decisions – the right of a governing body to control movement across borders, regulate and collect taxes, and fix a state budget – rest in practice not only with the designated authorities, but also with local, regional, and trans-regional agents and, most importantly, with ordinary people.